Category: Dear Jill

Dear Jill: On sickness anxiety

Dear Jill,

I want to tell you a story about my sickness anxiety.

“Teacher, your eye… it’s..,” said little Dana, squinting one eye in lieu of words. She was a four-year-old English language learner trying to explain my swollen, infected, leaking eye and ask what was wrong.

“Yes, Teacher is sick,” I said, nodding and moving on. I didn’t have the energy to get into an explanation. My little Korean kindergarten students knew the word “sick” and that was enough.

At lunch break, instead of eating the kimchi-and-rice lunch provided by the school, I followed my co-teacher to an optometrist down the road. On the third floor of one of thousands of five-floor concrete boxes stretching across Incheon, Bucheon, and Seoul, a doctor gave me drops and time in front of a face dryer before sending my back to work.

Other illnesses brought on needles filled with who-knows-what (my boss assured me, after speaking with the doctor, that it was fine), and once I was “allowed” to sit in the staffroom with my head in my hands as I shook and sweated out a fever and another teacher took on some of my classes. This system kept me from taking more than one sick day in two years. On that day, I felt terrible for inconveniencing my coworkers when there was no one to take my classes and forcing them to come in on weekends for my missed time.

I don’t want to blame Korean hagwon work culture for my anxiety about taking sick days, but I emerged from that time with a weird sense of pride about working through illness. I would certainly not inconvenience people by staying home for a cough of sniffles.

My first sick day in Canada was because I was in the hospital after a bad bout of food poisoning left me severely dehydrated.

However, the longer I lived back home, the more my Western norms reasserted themselves. I didn’t want to infect other people and I deeply resented sick people for coming into work and exposing me to their germs. But this weird guilt lingered.

It’s worth pointing out that I catch everything. If someone I pass on the bus is coughing, I will probably be wheezing by next weekend. I catch the flu, bronchitis, strep, sinus infections—at least two or three of these illnesses each year.

When I’m ill, like most people, I’m tired and less efficient in my work. My mind has a hard time focusing and it takes longer to complete things. A day or two of rest makes a tremendous difference in recovery and I come back weirdly excited to go back to work.

Yet, when I wake up knowing a bad illness has taken hold, I turn to Ryan and look at him imploringly, “Do you think I’m sick enough?”

This need for permission is hard to wrap my head around. I work in an office where my day-to-day work can be taken on by several other people and most of my deadlines are flexible. I have a laptop to work remotely from home.

Yet I feel like I’m committing a subversive act if I take a day off (and I have sick days!) or even work from my couch. It’s a mental struggle on top of the physical struggle of fighting off infection and fever.

And though I come back refreshed, happy to be feeling healthier and out of the house, I keep expecting someone to comment on my absence. I expect someone to suggest I lack fortitude and perseverance, that I’m putting my job in danger, that I don’t deserve any of the things I’ve worked for.

It’s a struggle I haven’t figured out how to navigate yet. I am glad to be in a work culture that doesn’t overtly throw shade for being sick or insist I see doctors on very short lunch breaks. But the subtext still feels very real: I should not be sick, I should be working, I should be productive or I am failing to be a responsible adult.

Dear Jill: How to read more books this year

Dear Jill,

I have 10 books on my Goodreads list right now and that’s probably too many. I can only keep track of a couple at a time. One of them I haven’t picked up in months, although it sits at my bedside.

I’ve been a restless reader lately, I’ve started more than 10 books that never made the list and set them down. It’s not because they were bad (most of them), but I just didn’t have that drive to read them. I’d set them down and not care what happened next.

However, I’ve read 25 books this year, so far and I imagine I’ll get to 75 by the end of December as I usually do. Maybe all 10 of my current reads will be done by then, or maybe I’ll remove some. It took me more than a year to finish The Brothers Karamazov back in 2013. I read in fits and starts and enjoyed it overall. I just couldn’t do it in one go.

Here are my secrets to reading more books in a year:

  1. Mix in some short reads. I always read a few graphic novels throughout the year and I tend to motor though, even though I like to stop and examine the pictures. They get a bad rap sometimes, but even much-maligned superhero comics can have surprising depth. One book I’ve set down, but will eventually come back to is Mighty Thor with Jane Foster becoming Thor while fighting cancer. It’s pretty dark (which is why I had to set it down for a bit).
  2. Don’t force yourself to finish every book. There’s no participation trophy. Reading should be enjoyable and you’ll read faster if you read things you like. It’s OK if a book challenges you and takes you longer to read (hello, Thomas Cromwell biography), but if you’re resisting picking it up, try something else.
  3. Audiobooks are books. I don’t quite understand why some people don’t want to count them as books. You listen to the whole story and you get to do things like drive or ride the bus at the same time. Also, your weird purist idea of reading leaves out those who are blind, dyslexic, or have another impairment that prevents them from reading from the page and there’s no need to be ableist in your reading habits.
  4. Try new genres. I used to be the most awful book snob. In the past few years I’ve started adding mysteries and bestsellers much more than I used to. I was surprised by how much I liked them. In the past I’d read such a small selection of the sub-genres that I was writing off so many great books because I didn’t like a couple of authors.
  5. Talk to people about books. Reading gives you something to talk about when you are forced to make small talk. When people know you read, they’ll often ask you about what you’re reading and that carries the conversation without having to resort to the weather. Then they’ll tell you about what their reading. You’ll both get great recommendations. Everyone wins.
  6. Turn the TV off / put your phone down. I watch TV and I play on my smartphone a lot. Social media is my literal job. But I make myself spend at least one evening reading each week for at least an hour, I read on many of my lunch breaks, and I listen to audiobooks on the bus. Sometimes it takes 10-15 minutes for my brain to calm down and focus, but it will. Unlike when I scroll on Twitter for 20 minutes, I feel more refreshed at the end.

This is how I read 50-75 books each year. Nothing ground-breaking, but I like to think some of these things are freeing. Read what you like! Read short books! Listen to books! Set realistic goals for you. I don’t have kids, so I have more free time than my friend with three kids under five.

Reading more will enrich your life and make you a more interesting person… But that’s another letter.



Dear Jill: Getting better at hard things

Dear Jill,

The hardest thing lately has been to sit down and write. Writing for fun or writing for work, it’s just felt torturous.

I came across this article in a newsletter I got over the weekend called How to do Hard Things.

The article recommends adding the hard thing to easy things and practicing until the hard part is easy. So I decided there are several things I can do to get over this hump.

  1. Easy thing: outlining; Hard thing: writing I love making a good plan. I need to pair this with writing. My outlines need to be more fleshed out, rather than the goal posts I’ve been letting them be. It will make the final writing process less daunting (hopefully), but will allow me to work on writing in smaller increments.
  2. Easy thing: research; Hard thing: writing I can get lost in research, but this eats up at my writing time. It’s hard to quantify what I’ve been doing all day if I don’t have some sort of product. That doesn’t mean the research isn’t valuable, it’s just much better if I can use it in some way. Therefore, I’m going to write more about the things I research. I won’t move on to the next topic until I’ve written something related to that research.

The article also recommends trying beginner exercises to get you going with the hard thing you’re trying to get better at.

I took a look at an article on writing discipline and decided to try the following:

  • Write small passages and build up. This can mean scenes in my stories or small blocks of social media posts rather than doing the whole batch at once.
  • Create a routine. I usually find it easier to write in the afternoon. When possible, I’m going to write when I get back from lunch, rather than trying to force it in the morning when I’m more geared to taking things in.

I don’t supposed it will make the moment of starting any easier, but it will get me going. It’s a bit like getting up in the morning—I hate it for the first five minutes and then it’s OK. Especially if there’s coffee.